Words by Melissa Diaz
There are two villains in movie history that have haunted my nightmares since I was a little girl: Baron Vladimir Harkonnen from David Lynch’s Dune (1984) and Albert Spica from Peter Greenaway’s x-rated cult classic The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989). Having first viewed both under the watchful eye of my parents, my repulsion and morbid fascination with these characters followed me into adulthood where I’ve since watched them over and over again, still as terrified. It was with this intrigue that I recently visited Primary Projects’ newest exhibition His Wife, Her Lover, a group show that, for the most part, maintains the textural decadence and upfront brutality its namesake film hauntingly portrays.
The premise of the show emerges from what Typoe, Director of Exhibitions at Primary Projects calls an aesthetic that explores the “dark and sexy undertones” of human nature. The show’s press release reveals that the exhibition was conceived as “a call-and-respond to destruction, secrecy, violence, social class, pride and desire.” A welcome opportunity no doubt, for these artists to explore the most depraved natures of our culture.
One of the highlights of the exhibition is Emmet Moore’s Cage, which dangles from the center of the gallery like a sadomasochistic chandelier. Confined inside are three bold beams of clinically white fluorescent lights. A master of material deception, Moore masquerades painted wood to look like the kind of cold iron cage one would imagine in hanging in the cellar of Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.
Greenaway’s film, which marries the human fascination with gore, sex and gluttony with something that can only be understood in terms of a Baroque sensibility is dutifully manifested in His Wife, Her Lover. The heaving breasts of Rubenesque nymphs are updated with the gyrating pelvic thrusts and bouncing breasts of the professional stripper included in Jessy Nite’s tiny single room installation Hell Here (lap dances were offered on opening night for the going rate of $20). The intensity of canvases dripping with blood (think Caravaggio’s self portrait David with the Head of Goliath, 1605-06) are referenced in the dramatic splattering of melted red Crayola crayon in Scott Shannon’s medium specific I’m Not Like Other Girls. Andrew Nigon’s colorful totem Figurine of Stripy Posing as the Messiah recalls the highly manufactured and laughable theatrics of much of the religious art produced during this time.
George Sanchez Calderon’s works fully embrace the artificiality of a neo-Baroque aesthetic. His Vacas Flacas recall the pregnant seascapes of Rubens and Géricault. However, underneath the surface of the romantic grand ship at sea is the palpable presence of insincere materials like glitter, that are manufactured to pretend to be valuable. In these seemingly traditional works, Calderon combines these less expensive materials like Xerox copies with pigment and crafts EPS foam frames made to mimic their gilded Baroque counterparts.
An effect more obviously seen in Crack Can Pipe, an aluminum can fashioned to function as drug paraphernalia and sprayed in gold paint. It manifests the subtle conversion from garbage to functional object to finally object of value and all the varying ways we fetishize these things. The works become less about the objects themselves, and more about Calderon’s desire to make their artificiality transparent.
One of the more successful surprises in the show is Manny Prieres’ Remnants series. The series of six black monochromatic ‘mourning cards’ hand copied from found nineteenth century mourning cards that were originally mass-produced and sold to commemorate the dead. The series marks a shift in Prieres’s artistic practice, whose work has been known for his carefully rendered drawings and visual language steeped in personal iconography.
The singular use of black is not a new element in his work, but has played an integral role in recent work. Black is a color many artists avoid using so liberally because it absorbs everything and emits nothing. Prieres says he has “always been fascinated with the baggage of the color black.” By covering the areas of the cards where the deceased name should be with reflective black enamel, Prieres dramatically shifts the subject of this work from himself to the viewer.
In Remnants, Prieres is interested in juggling and comparing the complex associations with death and notions of legacy. For Prieres, these vary from Latin cultures where death is a very powerful presence in the make-up of family and social life to counter-culture youth subgroups like Goths and punks that identify with the concept death only as a signifier of rebellion.
There are other undertones in Peter Greenaway’s film and this exhibition that remain just below the surface of all the dramatics. And that includes the inevitable connection between wealth, excess and absolute corruption. Whether that be brute violence (as in Nardon’s Only the Strong, an archeological hanging of fabricated jailhouse shivs) or the racial and social class struggles that explode on the surface of Cleon Peterson’s apocalyptic Daybreak 1. Johnny Robles’ Little Boy, a missile on top of a large coil meant to look like a children’s rocking playground toy reminds one of the propagandic objects used to indoctrinate children to the principles of war and hatred.
Scott Shannon’s Don’t Even Care I’m Going to Prom appropriates the symbol of a Swastika, delicately rendered from pink roses in Crayola crayon. The drawing is not offensive in content, but in the lack of consideration to its content. The Swastika is a symbol with such a rich history and significance that throwing it out there without much context in a group exhibition runs the risk of falling flat with a thud. Positioned in the back wall of the gallery, it careens forward like a visual blitzkrieg when you enter the space, and never delivers much beyond that initial shock-and-awe, which doesn’t leave much of an impression in light of the stronger works in the exhibition.
Shannon’s other contribution to the show holds a much different effect. It allows the tactility of his medium (crayons) to take center stage of this 2-panel drawing. The red Rorschach-like drawing explodes in the front area of the gallery like a bloody mess. Its rich redness, contrasted against the white of the paper makes the implied carnage of it all seem so attractive.
Nick Klein’s Luvv Buzzed also felt a little overdone within the inner workings of the exhibition. The video installation is predominantly slow-motion images of what could be an under-age girl’s face looking emotionless into the camera while someone “off-stage” is hosing her down with water. It’s direct reference to sex and violence left little wiggle room for a viewer to reflect on their own sinful engagement with the piece – an attribute that made other works in the show so successful.
The drama of His Wife, Her Lover, comes not only from the works selected, but also in the theatrics of the show’s orchestration. The show is subtly divided into areas that support and enhance the show’s “dark and sexy undertones.” The strongest (and starkest) of these exists within the dialogue between Prieres’ Remnants, Moore’s Cage, Nite’s Hell Here, and Peterson’s Daybreak 1. The exhibition straddles the serious and the bizarre with just enough humor that it pacifies any discomfort one would feel with the subject matter at hand. It strikes the same careful balance between these elements that continues to make Greenaway’s film so irresistible.